There are two kinds of bookstores in the world: regular ones, and second-hand bookstores. Each of these has its own aesthetic, its own special smell, its own type of bookseller, and, to a large extent, its own clientele. When you are searching for a book, you will easily know which of the two kinds of bookstore to visit. If the book came out in the last 5-10 years or so, you will go to a regular bookstore; otherwise, it’ll be the second-hand one. There are some businesses that dabble in both, especially if they combine second-hand books with remaindered ones, but these stores are rare enough for the binary division to remain valid. After a certain period of time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, a book will not be sold by regular bookstores anymore. This was not always so.
In this particular case, an obscure and seemingly unrelated legal decision is to blame for massive changes that occurred in the bookselling world. In Thor Power Tool Co. v. Commissioner in 1979, the US Supreme Court ruled that a business is only allowed to depreciate its inventory for tax purposes if it proceeds to actually offer the goods for a reduced price. In more accessible English, this means that if a publisher continues to sell a book at the initial price, they must also pay a correspondingly high tax for each year that they keep the book in storage.
Previously, the publishers had been able to reduce the accounting value of unsold books, and hence the tax they paid, every year, simply due to the fact that with each subsequent year, the remaining books in storage were less likely to sell. After 1979, all this changed and it suddenly became unprofitable to store books for more than a couple of years after they were published. Huge amounts of books suddenly found themselves remaindered, or more likely, pulped, soon after release. Knowingly or not, the US Supreme Court thus managed to destroy more books than did many of the great tyrants of history.
Of course, the world isn’t just America. However, the Justices’ decision affected every bookseller who imported books from the USA and who would suddenly find the previous decade’s titles unprocurable. More importantly, other countries passed similar regulations over the years, increasing the taxes that publishers had to pay for unsold stock. During the course of the 20th century, it thus became increasingly less common to find old books still in stock with the publisher.
The Guinness Book of Records includes the record for “slowest-selling book”, which is currently held by the 1716 translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin by David Wilkins, published by the Oxford University Press. The book remained in stock for 191 years, with the last copy eventually being sold in 1907. It is easy to understand why this particular record hasn’t been broken in over a century. By the time the daring publisher were finally presented with a Guinness Record certificate for their slow-selling book title, the publisher in question would have paid dozens of times the retail value of the books just in taxes.
Fortunately, some countries are friendlier towards publishers. However, even when taxes on unsold books are low, storage costs mean that publishers need to pay for each extra year that they keep an old title in stock. As a consequence, you will tend to still find very old titles in stock mostly at government-owned institutions which have their own – free – warehouses. Let’s have a look at some of the oldest titles still in stock with publishers from Slovenia and the nearby area.
The Slovenska Matica publishing house is one of the country’s largest academic publishers and the second oldest publisher in Slovenia – indeed, it’s the oldest one to still occupy the same headquarters, and never to change its name. Fittingly, Slovenska Matica is also known for never letting go of its stock. Apart from new titles, they also regularly offer unsold books from the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s at book fairs at reduced prices. At the time of writing, they still have a special offer of older editions for 2 euros apiece – from this selection, I bought a new copy of Lavo Čermelj’s Between the First and the Second Trieste Tribunal, printed in 1972.
Čermelj’s memoir of the Fascist era devotes considerable attention to the travails of Slovenian-language publishers between both world wars in Italian-occupied western Slovenia. He also describes his personal experience with libricide – he probably holds the Slovenian record for the number of separate occasions on which his books were burned – which means that I’ll probably return to this memoir in one of my coming posts. Slovenian speakers are advised to use the opportunity and check out not just Čermelj, but the entire discounted selection.
A few minutes’ walk from Slovenska Matica is the National Museum of Slovenia, which has also been in the publishing business since the 19th century. The oldest title still in the museum store is a 1957 volume in Serbo-Croatian, discussing a set of medieval remains in modern-day Croatia. While I don’t have a copy of this book myself, I do have a copy of the oldest Slovenian-language book still on offer: Brezje by Karl Kromer, brought out in 1959. To be more precise, the book is a bilingual German-Slovenian edition, a catalogue of Iron Age finds from the Slovenian village of Brezje.
Reading the catalogue has a rather melancholy feeling to it, as none of the finds discussed inside are in Slovenia anymore. The excavations took place before WWI, in Austro-Hungarian times, and even though the excavators were Slovenian, the unearthed items quickly found themselves carted off to Vienna, where they reside to the present day. If we can’t behold the ancient helmets in Ljubljana anymore, we can at least check out their depictions in this book; it continues to be available both at the museum shop and by mail order.
Older still is the stock at the Technical Museum of Slovenia, an amazing institution that is located within the building of a former monastery in the village of Bistra. The museum was founded in 1951 and began publishing books the following year. Most of the early titles are sold out, but the museum shop still has some copies of Idrija’s “Kamšt”, a 1954 booklet by Albert Struna. The booklet is a short guide to the water supply system which was used to provide power for Idrija’s mercury mines; despite its brevity, it remains the most extensive treatment of the subject so far.
Even though the booklet isn’t technically for sale anymore, I’m including it in the list, as the museum shop still has a few copies set aside for researchers who can’t find the book anywhere else. Unfortunately, they’ve run out entirely of their beautiful 1956 book Vigenjc, illustrating the history of nail production in NW Slovenia. However, I managed to get myself a copy during a visit some years ago, a mere 50 years after the book’s publication.
Slovenians might not like this very much, but this time it’s the Croatian publishers who take the cake. The winner is the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, which still has copies of its 1945 book The Fortress Vučedol in stock. This book itself suffices for a story of its own, albeit more of an archaeological than a bibliophile story. The book discusses the Vučedol culture, which is nowadays recognized as one of the major Copper Age cultures in the Balkans, with some viewing it as an early Indo-European society.
The remains at Vučedol village were first excavated in the late 1930s by a team of German and Yugoslav archaeologists, which of course produced tensions concerning the distribution of the finds. After the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Himmler stepped in and demanded that the most impressive finds, including the famous “Vučedol dove,” be located, packed up, and sent to Germany. Interestingly, the local Croatian fascists managed to get Himmler to change his mind – being the only other country in Europe with its own death camps for Jews, Croatia was a very valuable ally. The local authorities instead mustered funding for a German-language monograph about the investigations at Vučedol, and brought the book out just before liberation in 1945.
Die Burg Vučedol, as the book is titled, is still for sale 75 years after its publication. The price is a relatively hefty 200 HRK, which is about 30 euros. This is a bit much for me, given that the book wouldn’t really be a key element of my collection, but I don’t despair. Sometime in the next 50 years, the museum is bound to have a sale and offer the book for a reduced price – and then I’ll snatch it!
I’m a bit indecisive about what the take-home message of today’s post should be. On one hand, I appreciate that the above publishers have kept their books in stock for 50 years and more, and never succumbed to the temptation of emptying their warehouses to make room for new merchandise. Hence, I am rewarding them with the free promotion above. On the other hand, I don’t really want to see all the books that I just mentioned become suddenly sold out. If you’re reading this, and are thinking of buying one of the above-mentioned books, go ahead, but please make sure that it’s not the last copy in stock. If we all exercise some restraint and refrain from buying the last available copies of these books, then maybe, just maybe, one of these Slovenian/Croatian publishers might eventually manage to break David Wilkins’ 191-year record.
- Lopez, Ken. Trends in Modern Book Collecting. Accessible at: https://lopezbooks.com/articles/trends/
- Slowest selling book. Guinness World Records. Accessible at: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/slowest-selling-book
- Sutlić, Korana. Nacisti u lovu na Vučedolsku golubicu. Jutarnji list: June 13, 2015. Accessible at: https://www.jutarnji.hr/globus/nacisti-u-lovu-na-vucedolsku-golubicu-himmler-je-htio-blago-pronadeno-u-vucedolu-i-sarvasu-prebaciti-u-njemacku-289618